Image: A piece of paper with blanks and boxes for check marks, a check list. (TeroVesalainen/pixabay)
Every year, when I teach my students about the concept of mitzvot [commandments] some member of the class will ask for a list of the 613. I remember being the student who wanted the list, and I remember why I wanted it: I wanted to be sure that I had a good checklist, because I was determined to be a very good Jew.
The thing is, most Jews do not worry about 613 mitzvot. We just do our best to do all the mitzvot that we can.
The number originates in a sermon by Rabbi Simlai, a 3rd century rabbi who lived in the land of Israel:
Rabbi Simlai taught: There were 613 mitzvot stated to Moses in the Torah, consisting of 365 prohibitions corresponding to the number of days in the solar year, and 248 positive mitzvot corresponding tothe number of a person’s limbs. Rav Hamnuna said: What is the verse that alludes to this? It is written: “Moses commanded to us the Torah, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 34:4). The word Torah, in terms of its numerical value [gimatriyya], is 611, the number of mitzvot that were received and taught by Moses our teacher. In addition, there are two mitzvot: “I am the Lord your God” and:“You shall have no other gods” (Exodus 20:2, 3), the first two of the Ten Commandments, that we heard from the mouth of the Almighty, for a total of 613. – Makkot 23b-24a
This text is the origin of the number 613. It is a poetic way of saying, “The commandments of the Torah cover all aspects of life, all the days of the year and all the bones in our bodies.” Still, it provided many rabbis, Maimonides included, with a great puzzle: how to fit the mitzvot in the Torah to the number!
One of those lists is available online at Judaism 101. I remember as a student pouring over a similar list, trying to figure out how to do all those mitzvot as quickly as possible. Gradually I realized that part of doing mitzvot is learning about them – and learning about them is a lifetime process. Sometimes it’s learning about a minor holiday or practice. Sometimes it’s about building my skills for visiting the sick, supporting mourners, etc, Sometimes the learning is about how this ancient mitzvah will fit into my modern life – but learning is always a part of it.
I find it useful to scan these lists when I’m feeling a little too smug about my life. There will usually be a clue there about a mitzvah I have managed to ignore. Then I can embark on a cycle:
- Learn all I can about that mitzvah
- Imagine how it might fit into my life
- If appropriate, talk with other members of my household about that mitzvah
- Talk with a colleague I trust to get a rabbi’s point of view on that mitzvah
- Make a plan for improving my observance of that mitzvah
- Check in with myself about it from time to time.
This is not rocket science. Often it happens when I am saying the traditional prayers. For instance, there is a short listing of the mitzvot that reward us both in this world and in the next in the morning prayers:
These are the obligations without a limit. A person eats their fruit in this world, and sets up a reward in the world to come as well:
To honor father and mother;
To perform acts of love and kindness;
To attend the house of study morning and evening;
To receive guests;
To visit the sick;
To rejoice with the bride and groom;
To accompany the dead;
To pray with intention;
To bring peace between a person and his fellow.
And the study of Torah is equal to them all, because it leads to them all!
Something on that list will bother me, reminding me that I haven’t kept that mitzvah very well. Have I visited someone sick any time recently? Been to a funeral? Have I studied Torah regularly, beyond what my work requires? Then, when I spot the problem, I act to mend my ways.
Some mitzvot aren’t appropriate for me; Some are only for Cohanim (priests.) Some are only for farmers in the Land of Israel. Some have to do with the Temple cult, which can’t resume without the Temple. But there are still plenty of them to give me work to do!
So that’s the story of the 613 mitzvot. Somewhere in those wonderful inconsistent lists, a mitzvah is waiting for each of us. And when that one is running smoothly, there will be another.
Mitzvah goreret mitzvah.
One mitzvah leads to another. – Pirkei Avot 4:2